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co(a)sts: A review of Pie Are Squared’s challenging new drone album
 
 

The main tool used when sound synthesizers first became commercially available in the 1960s, the modular synth, has made a comeback in recent years among dance and experimental musicians after its long eclipse by fixed-architecture, polyphonic, frequency-modulation and soft synthesizers. Unlike fixed-architecture synths, modular synths don’t limit users to one approach — with a customizable set-up of several compatible modules, it’s possible to build unique sounds and work more freely. Modular synth manufacturers use two main systems: “East Coast synthesis,” after New York-based engineer and experimental musician Robert Moog, and “West Coast synthesis,” after California-based music equipment maker Donald Buchla. The more common Moog system uses subtractive synthesis, in which waveforms produced by an oscillator are passed through a filter and then an amp, while the Buchla system’s more intricate method involves using a waveshaper to produce complex tones from simple waveforms like the triangle wave.

A hybrid of both systems — though leaning toward the Buchla approach — was released last year by US company Make Noise: the 0-Coast synth module. In his 11th release, put out on July 29, Italy-based Egyptian musician Pie Are Squared (31-year-old Mohamed “SikSik” Ashraf) used this new synth as his main sound source, manipulating it through delay, reverb and fuzz effects, as well as creating sound through controlled sequencing using a Korg SQ1. The result is an EP of five drone tracks focused on sound texture and timbres, alternating between relaxing atmospheric moods and sharp, noisy, multi-layered sounds.

co(a)sts reflects SikSik’s relationship with the machine and his ability to produce rich, inspiring sounds with minimum resources. He doesn’t fall into the trap of showing off his star synth, producing a coherent and solid work by restricting himself and minimizing the tools he’s using. “The goal of the EP was to let the synthesizer guide the way the tracks developed,” SikSik writes on Bandcamp. “I knew after the first couple of hours after receiving the 0-Coast that it has something very special to offer and I decided to let it lead me in writing these songs. Programming a sequence that leaves room for variations, leaving it to play for hours at a time, listening back to everything and more often than not finding sections which I would’ve never come up with on my own.” Instead of relying on pre-patching, sounds made from scratch and then used without further modification, the EP’s sounds continuously morph through manipulation. This resulting exchange between the musician and his drone sounds keeps producing subtle changes in tone clusters and textures, adding to their complexity. The best way to capture these changes would probably be to listen to them played at high volume in a live performance.

The EP opens with Nearly There Now, a track that gradually reveals the notes of a single chord as they switch between octaves. Apparently static at first, its subtle dynamics deriving from these progressively emerging harmonics unfold with focused listening. Slight changes are made to the sounds, the synth parameters are manipulated, and effects are added with an emphasis on texture — an approach SikSik uses throughout the album. Nearly There Now reminds me of the early work of British ambient music pioneer Brian Eno. Eno’s Discreet Music (1975) similarly compels the listener to cogitate on the music.

With Three and a Half, the EP enters a tenser, more colorful and sharper arena, introducing melodies through manipulation of waveforms and harmonics. Ideas flow smoothly and simply halfway through the EP, until the largely metallic textures of the third track: Slower Than Your Life, in which an increasing use of fuzz creates sharp, noisy layers that sound more magnified, complex and aggressive.

The best and most dynamic track, in my opinion, is the fourth: Taphonomy. It slowly unravels the variations and the complex, tangled sounds, climaxing mid-track as noise prevails among several layers of sound. Using a pedal custom-made  by Joshua Forbes (of US company Built Then Burnt Audio), SikSik adds depth to dense low-fi layers with fuzz and an effect similar to tape delay. The track challenges our ability to handle unconventional and unexpected sounds, taking us out of our comfort zones. Tension recedes again in There Now, a more relaxing track closely related to Nearly There Now in terms of sound and ideas — the album comes full-circle — though more dynamic: It’s a good finale.

 

 

co(a)sts is clearly influenced by the Buchla synth improvisations of Italian musician Alessandro Cortini (best known for working with US band Nine Inch Nails). This is especially clear in Slower Than Your Life and Taphonomy, which use the same approach in transforming simple sounds into complex, dense textures. SikSik also deals freely with time, avoiding traditional forms and dance features based on static rhythms. Cortini’s influence is present in the album’s overall sound: unlike the sexy bass and sub-bass sounds that pervade most electronic genres of late, SikSik has a distinctive focus on the mid-range.

co(a)sts is SikSik’s best work so far. The album A State of Unwavering Contempt (2013) came across as rather overproduced, while Hangover in Siberia (2011) and Lucciole (2015) stretched themselves over too many genres and sounds. This new EP incorporates improvisation, experimentation and what US pioneer of minimalist music Steve Reich has described as “gradual process”— an essential minimalist attribute. In his pursuit of what could be called “negative beauty,” SikSik highlights the hidden aesthetics in noise and simultaneously uses it as a decoy to cloak his music’s tonality, challenging the listener to resist the distraction and keep listening intently. It’s as if we have to struggle with the music, or even with SikSik himself. In co(a)sts, SikSik has found the unique sound he’s been looking for, which should pave the way for an interesting new mature phase.

First published on Ma3azef here, this article was translated by Amira Elmasry.

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Rami Abadir